x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Things never dull with ruthless Boks

As the Springboks basked in the glow of victory over New Zealand, the South African captain John Smit remarked how there had been "none of the shenanigans of the Lions series".

As the Springboks basked in the glow of victory over New Zealand on Saturday night, South African captain John Smit remarked how there had been "none of the shenanigans of the Lions series". Smit's point was that while the Boks had been disjointed and sloppy for large parts of that series, in Bloemfontein they were ruthless, accurate and disciplined in beating New Zealand 28-19.

The win gave the Boks more than the perfect start to the Tri Nations; it shot them back to No 1 on the world rankings, long a personal crusade of Smit's and validation of their status as world champions. All week the focus had been on how poor the ticket sales were, but on Saturday the fans came out in their droves and were rewarded with a hard-fought win. It was not an especially high-quality game, but it was hard and compelling with battered faces and bruised bodies reflecting the game's physical nature.

What was remarkable about the match was how ineffectual the All Blacks were. That they always come hard goes without saying - they had lost just six of 22 Tests against the Boks since the turn of the century - but on Saturday they were woeful. Victor Matfield plundered their line-out, Heinrich Brussow more than measured up against Richie McCaw in the fierce battle on the ground and Bakkies Botha lent fire to the tackle point. All of this, plus New Zealand's miserable ball handling, combined to knock them off kilter.

For a change, the Boks were extremely smart tactically. Only when the pack had established itself in the set-pieces and gained supremacy in contact did Smit give the order to play wide. "It was a good, hard Test where we smashed each other for 80 minutes," he said. Fittingly, two of the chief destroyers were a pair of players who went to the same school in the shadow of the Free State Stadium. Brussow and Bismarck du Plessis, who call Grey College their alma mater, revelled in the physical aspect and helped the Boks dominate the ruck cleans and work the rolling maul to good effect.

Inevitably, New Zealand's answer was to spoil and niggle at the breakdown, although referee Alain Rolland was wise to this and the penalty count mounted. McCaw's team grew frustrated, as did the Boks - between them, Ruan Pienaar and Morne Steyn missed five cracks at goal. Had they been successful, the Boks would have been out of sight. Early in the second half the score was 17-3 to the Boks, but a hallmark of the All Blacks is that they never give up. A drop in the Boks' intensity coincided with the All Blacks sending on a slew of replacements. This helped them produce the most fluid period of the match and they raced back into contention when centre Conrad Smith slid through.

Yet even with this setback the Boks could summon the extra gear, resulting in a sensational try to Jaque Fourie in the 73rd minute. It was a hammer-blow that took the game away from their greatest enemy. Next weekend the two teams get to do it all again in Durban. For New Zealand, coach Graham Henry will have to ponder the composition of his line-out, the choice of No 9 (Brendon Leonard was leaden-footed) and perhaps even the future of Joe Rokocoko, who never once posed the sort of danger he has in seasons past.

For the Boks, Jean de Villiers picked up a knee injury while Ruan Pienaar's sore foot had him replaced. There is also the small matter of dealing with Bryan Habana, who is in a pickle after apparently being seen returning to his hotel at 1am on the morning of the match. Proof, as always, that things are never dull in South African rugby. sports@thenational.ae